There’s No Crying in the Archives!

I remember my first time fondly. The year was 2010. It was a hot summer day in downtown Denver and I was excited, yet nervous. Would I know what to do? Would I be good at it? What if it was boring? Would I get to wear those cool white gloves? Ah yes, the first trip to the archives is always a special time in a grad student’s life (Hey – get your mind out of the gutter!). I was an MA student at the University of Wyoming and I had traveled down to the Colorado State Archives to do my thesis research on female juvenile delinquency in Progressive-Era Denver. On my way to the archives, I imagined what my first research experience would be like – perhaps I would be sitting in an old, dusty room with only an antique lamp to illuminate my precious manuscripts and documents. Maybe I would make friends with the elderly archivist, who would surely offer me a hot cup of tea. The possibilities were endless!

When I finally arrived at the archive, instead of something like this:

the archive looked more like this:

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit, but the Colorado State Archives looked nothing like I imagined – think more 1960s sterile government office than romantic Indiana Jones-type library. The thing is, even though my initial impression of the archive left something to be desired, the experience itself was transformative. Not only were the archivists beyond helpful (think superheroes with khakis and glasses), but the actual act of researching – immersing myself into the primary sources – produced an unexpected emotional response. Reading page after page, story after story of young girls incarcerated in Colorado’s State Industrial School for offenses ranging from stubbornness, to homosexuality, to homelessness, to merely being  innocent victims of incest, was, at times, a difficult experience. It took a toll on me. The stories of those girls are still with me more than 2 years later and the experience created a newfound reverence for historical research that goes well beyond the superficial expectations of going to a fancy archive (Although, I heard a rumor that the archivists at the Clements Library here at the University of Michigan actually do offer hot cups of tea to visiting researchers!).

I was curious to see if other scholars had similar emotional experiences in the archives, so I decided to ask some of my historian friends and was surprised to hear that I am not the only weirdo out there who cries in archives:

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto (PhD Candidate, University of Michigan, and co-author of the blog, The Juvenile Instructor):

I was sitting in the comfort of my own home when I first encountered Louisa Barnes Pratt, a middle-aged Mormon women whose husband left her to be a Mormon missionary in the South Pacific. Like many early Mormon women, Louisa struggled to take care of her children in his absence. Soon after her husband left, her eldest daughter fell through a cellar door. Some neighbors brought her broken, unconscious body back to Louisa. Her husband’s absence meant that she would have to take care of her daughter. She bathed her daughter in cold water and then called for the elders to anoint and bless her. Miraculously, the girl recovered.

Over the next couple of months, I came to care deeply about Louisa. I huddled with her in fear when the mobs ransacked Nauvoo. I walked with her across the plains until my feet were weary, and became sick with fever with her two eldest daughters. What bothered me the most, however, was the fact that she had lost her teeth. When Louisa was traveling with the Latter-day Saints, she contracted cholera and then scurvy.

She recovered but lost her teeth. It also bothered me that her husband left her alone to care for their children while he served a mission. I was also angry that so few people in the Latter-day Saint community seemed to care about the petite woman and her children. She was expected to care for them and herself without complaint. What bothered me the most, however, was those teeth. I couldn’t believe that she had been forced to be toothless for decades.

I met Louisa again a few months ago when I returned to Utah to do research on the topic that had become my dissertation. Although I still enjoyed researching the lives of Mormon women, the sheer number of microfilm rolls overwhelmed me. I was tired when I finally got to the reels concerning Louisa’s life in Utah after her husband had returned from his mission. I lazily skimmed the poetry she had written championing women’s suffrage and the letters she had written to her daughters about her grandchildren.

Then, I came across a sentence that made me stop dead in my tracks. Louisa had decided to go to the doctor to get a new set of teeth. I immediately forgot my boredom. Something about the knowledge that Louisa got a set of dentures decades after losing her teeth made me absurdly happy. I had to tell someone and ended up calling my mom who just sighed and told me that I was getting too wrapped up in my research. I agreed a bit with her but there was something about those teeth that brought me total joy.

Cheryl Lemus (PhD extraordinaire and co-founder of Nursing Clio)

This had to be the summer of 2009 and I was doing research at the archives at University of Chicago for my dissertation. I was going through Morris Fishbein’s collection. Now for those who do not know who Fishbein is, he was the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, from 1924-1949 who led an effective campaign against universal health care. Let’s just say he is not a hero for many (he’s called a dictator). Anyway, I was very aware of the views about him. But that’s not why I was looking through his collection. See Fishbein was an avid collector of baby announcements. Now these baby announcements were not like the boring ones we have today. No these were in the form of telegrams or advertisements. They were very creative and Fishbein collected them by the hundreds (or so it seems). I was hoping they would give me some information about pregnancy and the twentieth century (they did not).

Anyway, while going through some of this, I came across Fishbein’s hand-written account of the death of his son (which I believe was from complications of Rheumatic fever). My children were only toddlers at the time and I looked at it with some interest and I started reading. He talked about visiting his son in the hospital and what they would talk about. When I was in the middle, I started feeling guilty about reading something so personal, but I could not stop at the same time. Also, I felt this lump growing in my throat. In the last couple of pages, Fishbein described, in brutal detail, the day his son died. I cannot remember what he said exactly, but I do remember choking back a sob as he wrote how watch his son’s eyes close for the last time and hearing his last breath. (crap, I am fighting the tears right now). I don’t remember what happened next, but I rushed out of the archives and call my husband, sobbing incoherently. I know the rush of emotions had a lot to do with the fact I was a mother, but the way he lovingly described his son’s last hours spoke of the depth of love he had. From that point, I could not look at Fishbein the same way. He may have been a “dictator” of medicine, but he was a father who was destroyed with the loss of his son. How do we reconcile those two sides of Fishbein? Better yet, how did he?

Meggan Woodbury-Billotte (PhD Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-founder of Nursing Clio) 

As researchers, I think we generally bring a certain sense of detachment to our work. This detachment is partly because the items we are researching are often very far removed from our “real” lives, but also comes from a need for some sense of objectivity. Sometimes, though, you get caught off guard – even when you are not surprised at what you find. This happened to me when I was researching birth certificates found in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) files in the National Archives in Denver. I knew going into the files that Indian reservations were (and often still are) characterized by poverty and inadequate housing, diet, and health care. I also knew that researching birth also meant sometimes researching death. I was not surprised, then, when I came across a stack of death certificates mixed in with the birth certificates in my file. I was not surprised to see with my own eyes evidence of the higher rates of infant mortalities among reservation children. I was not surprised . . . and still, I cried. These were the death certificates of babies. Babies born into lives marked by a historical violence that either directly or indirectly contributed to their deaths. It was too much for me. Then and now.

Sarah Swedberg (Associate Professor of History, Colorado Mesa University)                                                                                                                                                                 

I am a historian of the early American republic who lives in the American west, 240 miles away from my closest colleagues and closest research library, and 2000 miles away from the archives that have informed my research.

When I teach in my field, I find myself waxing poetic about my love affair with archives, about what it meant to live in close proximately to archives, about the time in my life where the archives and I could carry on a torrid romance: meeting for an hour or two in the afternoon after my other scholarly duties were done.  I tell my students what it was like to fall in love with a collection, holding your breath when you open that archival box, and then breathing in the smell of old paper, pulling out the folders, turning the letters and seeing the marks on the page that someone 200 years dead wrote in his or her own hand.  There is always a moment, when I manage to find my way back into the archive, when I feel like I have reunited with a lover, a  moment when I tremble, cannot breathe, and feel like weeping with joy and longing.

And that’s even before I have read a word.

There is never just one time in the archives where my research affected me emotionally; it gets me every time.  I sorrow, I celebrate, I cry quiet tears (so as not to upset the archivists), I rejoice, I mourn, I puzzle.

Although these days my research relies mostly on things I can get in print–old medical writings, records of institutions, published diaries or letters–I will never lose my emotional attachment to the archives. When the students sometimes laugh at my obsession, telling me that someday everything will be available in digital form, I tell them this story about a moment that I cannot imagine will ever be able to be replicated through my computer.

The summer after I finished my dissertation, I made a trip to Washington, D.C. where a good friend lived.  In the hours when he was at work, I entertained myself in the Library of Congress, tying up some lose research ends.  My dissertation had focused on the Cranch family, in-laws to the much-more-famous Adams family.  The first box I received was a narrow box.  I opened the lid and looked at the labels on the folders, thinking about where I would start and in what order I would read.

One of the labels read, “Abigail Adams’s Hair.”  I pulled out that folder and opened it to find an envelope.  I opened the envelope to find a small curl of hair of an indiscriminate color.  That moment catapulted me to a different place or a different dimension.  This wasn’t just the written record left by her, this was part of her.

I had worked one summer at Adams National Historic Site, so I was used to being around the remnants of the Adams family.  I had led group after group through the houses they had occupied in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts.  I had worked through the day with their books, their furniture, and their ghosts.  I had never imagined, however, that in the Library of Congress, in a city they lived in for the briefest time, I would come across the actual hair of Abigail Adams.  The moment made me remember, again, that the people I research are not just a focus of study, but real people who lived and breathed on this earth.  It made me realize that, when I write, I need to recreate, to the best of my ability, their emotional lives which were so much a part of who they were when they were alive.

What about you, faithful Nursing Clio readers? Do you have any archive stories to share?

Jacqueline Antonovich is the creator and co-founder of Nursing Clio and served as executive editor from 2012 to 2021. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Muhlenberg College. Her current research focuses on women physicians, race, gender, and medical imperialism in the American West. Jacqueline received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2018.

9 thoughts on “There’s No Crying in the Archives!

    • Author gravatar

      These stories are wonderful and I’ll share them with my future graduate students. They also bring back fond memories of my archival work. So fondly, in fact, that these stories make me realize how much I miss those days (days and days turning into weeks) locked up in the “vault” at the Pasadena Unified School District working on a book on the history of school desegregation in southern California. (You may ask “how did an education historian working on civil rights get connected to Nursing Clio?” My oldest is finishing her graduate degree as a NP…)
      One story is worth sharing. At one point, my research focused on the long forgotten turn-of-the-century Mexican immigrant community in Pasadena. There was only scant mention of “the Mexicans” in the school records and only an occasional reference in the town’s newspapers but this was a significant community whose children had been segregated into two “Mexican schools” since the first decade of the century. The archives at PUSD are located in the school district main offices, housed in a former school building which has a large, walk-in vault turned into a depository for virtually everything school officials for decades have thought important enough to save: attendance records, board minutes, pamphlets, reel-to-reel tapes of board meetings, files of minutia with correspondence covering everything from out-of-school placements to court records detailing desegregation rulings. In other words, a treasure chest that absorbed me for weeks of full time work. No one, it seemed, had paid much attention to the vault’s contents–there was no organization scheme, no register, nothing really that pointed to any notion of an “index.” In fact, no one really knew what the vault contained and certainly no one had spent any time cleaning the vault because there was a layer of dust everywhere. And there was little evidence beneath that dust that the Mexican community even existed, until one day, as I picked up a three ring binder to move it from the top of a file cabinet, a 5×8 manila envelope fell out. I opened it and out came a handful of Kodak prints of costumed Mexican children, getting ready to perform a play at Junipero Serra Elementary School. I let out a yell that brought a nearby secretary to see if I had been injured. No I told her, it was just my excitement. I showed her the photos and told her about the school. She seemed impressed, but just smiled and excused herself. I’m sure she was thinking that this professor from back east had lost it. Your blog today made me realize how much I miss those moments losing it.

    • Author gravatar

      I am a PhD candidate in the History of Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and my dissertation is on how mothers have treated infectious disease in the home in twentieth century America. In the course of my research, the easiest way to locate a reference to infectious disease is often using keywords like “death,” which, as I’m sure you can imagine lead to some cheery afternoons in the Achives. I have started to joke that I need to schedule time spent looking at cute baby animals animals on the internet into my research trips to counter how depressing the research can sometimes be. I may need to thank Red Panda GIFs in my acknowledgements.

      The first time I cried in the Archive was in 2010 at the Baby Book Collection at UCLA’s biomedical library. Beginning in 1907 one mother kept a detailed daily account of her daughter, Doris. The final pages of the diary included a multi-page, painful description of her daughter’s death from Bright’s Disease, ending with the line “Oh my God, my God I live to write this.” Doris’ mother had the strength to write this final entry, but many mothers did not – the collection includes baby books that end with an obituary or an ominous entry about an illness that ends without resolution, leaving one to wonder if the mother couldn’t bear to write down what ultimately happened.

      Fortunately the archives is located conveniently close to a beautiful garden.

      • Author gravatar

        Your story almost made me start crying here in my living room. As a mother, I am always particularly vulnerable to stories in the archives about children. Also, now I have to go look up what a Red Panda GIF is just in case I need it in the future. 🙂

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      I don’t think I’ve cried in an archive, but I’ve certainly reacted with surging excitement that was inappropriate to the quiet dignity of the place. I was doing research in the Fonds Ancien of the Departmental Archives in Lyon. The building is in the old part of town and was the Carmelite convent before the French Revolution. It is quite the workout to get to. It is halfway up a butte, and you can either climb 235 stairs up (I counted one morning) or take the funicular to the top and go several hundred steps down. I was so sore after taking the down route one day I went from the bottom up ever after. Anyway, it was magical enough sitting in this old convent reading at a beautiful oak desk overlooking the courtyard — everything an archive experience really ought to be if it could. I was reading through the notary archives searching for the records on the particular family I am researching. That alone is difficult enough, because they come in massive piles and are written in archaic script and I felt like Indiana Jones touching documents that had lain untouched for well over a century. I found a marriage contract I was looking for that had been signed in 1793, at the height of the Revolution. I knew it was there, I knew the dates and the interested parties already. But as I read it I had a bit of a shock. The bride was an artisan’s daughter in the city, and the groom had left his profession to join the Army of the Alps, and the contract was signed in his barracks. Which happened to be the Carmelite convent, repurposed by the de-christianizing revolutionaries. I stared and realized that I was holding the contract, sitting in the convent where it was signed. It was just a wonderful amazing experience that I can’t even describe. I felt like they were right there, touching the paper I held, talking, laughing, kissing. I quietly freaked out.

    • Author gravatar

      Like Emily, I don’t think I have ever cried, but I know I’ve laughed or (tried to) have a quiet freakout. There’s one source I can always find in my Research Journal (a 155-page Word doc), because of its distinctive wording: “Almost peed my pants at the (Kriegs)ernährung articles and discussions in the Blätter der Wohlfahrtspflege—by the people who run the König-Albert-Heim!” I had been doing archival research on the König-Albert-Heim, a middle-class government employee cooperative vacation home in Saxony in the early 1900s. Then, when I was in the university library looking through semi-random hygiene journals, I found a discussion by its leaders of food policy in Germany during WWI and, well, you know the rest!

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      I cried while doing my master’s thesis on women’s home front experiences in Winchester, VA during the Civil War. I was reading Cornelia McDonald’s diary and she was detailing the loss of her baby who died suddenly. I lost it when McDonald described how she suffered so without her baby that she would climb the hill and sit at the baby’s grave and talk to her and cry every day. On the other side my grandmother had letters her dad sent her mom while he was in the army during WWI. Most of them described his loneliness and problems with dysentery but one part said that he had been thinking of her and had picked some violets he found in the woods and was sending them. There in the bottom of the envelope were very brittle, very old violets. 🙂 I like the story about the teeth though. It reminds me of Varina Howell Davis who lost all of her teeth and was too ashamed to go into society without her teeth. She used it as an excuse for her husband (Jeff Davis) flirting with all the young girls in Washington before the war. Of course he couldn’t be blamed she wouldn’t go to parties with him and she had no teeth. GAH!

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      oh i do so love Nursing Clio. I am an archivist and this article warms the cockles of my heart! I work in the field of Maritime History, but NC is an exemplar of historical blogging that I refer many of my like-minded feminista friends (mostly nursing professionals) to. Keep up the great work.

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